In the days of yore, poems were often recited to music. From being accompanied by a lyre in ancient Greece, to being anthologized as a collection of songs in ancient China, poetry has a long-standing historical connection to music. Even today, the ballad is a form of poetry set to music. So when accomplished Canadian author Steven Heighton released his debut album, The Devil’s Share, in April, the sheer amount of poetic influence and mastery of language should come as no surprise to the listener.
Ironically enough, Heighton started out as a songwriter while he was in high school. This venture carried into his twenties until he decided to pursue the writing of poetry, short stories, novels, and essays. His critically acclaimed body of work – eighteen books in all – has received numerous awards and accolades, and his writing career has been going strong for over thirty years.
When approaching the age of fifty, things took a violent turn as Heighton endured a significant injury from recreational hockey: a laryngeal fracture (layman’s terms: a crushed voice box). Faced with losing his voice entirely, this incident was the catalyst of Heighton’s return to music. He decided it was time to take his poetry back to its origins, both personal and historical, in the form of song. A throat-crushing accident ended up being a quasi return-to-self in disguise.
Recorded at the Post Office Studio in Wolfe Island, Canada, and produced by Hugh Christopher Brown, The Devil’s Share is an amalgamation of genres, pulling from Americana, folk, blues, roots, and country influences. The album opens with its titular track, a roots-infused bluesy tune that even has a tinge of Latin groove. “When I Finally Learn to Love” is largely spoken-word focused, save for the choruses that sound directly influenced by the folk-country sound of Bob Dylan.
Heighton isn’t afraid to stray away from the political, either. “2020”, a soft country-blues track, touches on the issue of political corruption and pleads for change: “I know some say it’s mindless to speak of simple kindness / But the future is our present and nothing less than love can bind us,” he sings.
The Latin-infused “Another Kind of Worse” directly addresses the hypocrisy that lies in performative activism. Lyrics such as, “When it comes to the inner fight / We’re all curiously averse,” illuminate a simple truth: surface-level changes are futile. To truly make a systemic change, we must change the system’s foundations from the ground up.
A personal favorite is the jaw-dropping track, “Six Months at the Worst”. Over an upbeat Springsteen-esque blue collar-rock tune, Heighton sings about the horrors of sexual assault and rape culture with direct references to the infamous Brock Turner case. This track calls out the excuses and justifications made to defend assailants by blaming the victim, and it mentions the privileges that come along with being a white man with a “bright future”.
Similar to songwriting legends Leonard Cohen and Kris Kristofferson, Heighton seamlessly incorporates his poetry, sometimes even spoken, into his music and delivers stories and messages in a way that allows listeners to look into themselves. His asking of hard-hitting questions about political corruption, sexual assault, cancel culture, and societal complacency is a long-overdue wake-up call.